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Third Sunday of Advent, December 14, 2014 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.

Picturing Mary

Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 89:1–4, 19–26
Isaiah 61:1–4, 8–11
Luke 1:26–38

Every human act, every Christian act, is an act of hope. But that means you must be men and women of the present; you must live this moment—really live it, not just endure it—because this very moment, for all its imperfection and frustration, because of its imperfection and frustration, is pregnant with all sorts of possibilities, is pregnant with the future, is pregnant with love, is pregnant with Christ.
Walter J. Burghardt

I want you to do something for me, if you don’t mind. For just a moment, close your eyes and picture Mary. What do you see in your imagination? Whenever I ponder Mary, my imagination is always captured by all the Marys I have seen in nativity sets over the years. In particular, I always think of a nativity set we used in one of my Texas congregations. Each year, during Advent and Christmas, we set up the space for a large nativity scene to unfold on a shelf in the chancel area. We would add a biblical nativity character each week during Advent until finally, on Christmas Eve, they were all there as a part of the story, including the baby Jesus. Mary always entered the scene on this Sunday, the third Sunday in Advent, the Sunday of Joy.

And, of course, the Mary of that nativity set wore a blue robe, like most nativity-set Marys. And she had this beatific, calm look on her face, as if she had just done the easiest thing in the entire world by giving birth in a strange place surrounded by animals. No blood, no sweat, no tears— just perfection. I looked at that Mary for seven Advent seasons, so whenever I pause to picture her, that is the Mary who occupies my imagination.

One of my favorite paintings of Mary, though, is of a different scene. It was painted by Simone Martini in 1333, and it is an interpretation of the Annunciation moment, the announcement moment I just read from Luke. In this portrayal of Mary, she has one hand in a book, as if the angel interrupted her reading time. Her posture is not relaxed but tense. She leans back, away from the kneeling angel Gabriel. The hand that is not in the book clasps her robe tightly around her body in a move that screams self-protection. And in that moment, she sits on the edge of her seat, as if she might bolt out of that room at the first opportunity she gets.

I love that painting, because it pries open my imagination about what that moment might have been like for her—that moment of announcement, of holy interruption and invitation. One minute, she is reading a book. But in the next minute, an angel is interrupting her. “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel said, “but God is about to do a new creation in you. Don’t be afraid, Mary, but God’s holy shadowing will come upon you, just as it did over the chaos in the beginning. Don’t be afraid, Mary, but when this happens, the Son of God is going to be planted in the hollow of your womb” (Heather Shortlidge, Fourth Sunday of Advent paper, The Well 2008).

Don’t be afraid? That angel was fooling himself. Who wouldn’t be afraid! Terribly afraid. Just imagine such a meeting. Don’t be afraid? Frankly, simply thinking about the whole thing makes me very glad God decided to put this incarnation plan in motion way back then with her, with Mary. After all, as we usually picture her, we assume she could handle it. Think about the adjectives typically used to describe her: pious, holy, set-apart, devoted, blessed. Yes, if anyone could be up for the task of growing and birthing the Son of God, it would be nativity-set Mary. Pious, holy, set-apart, devoted, blessed—someone way out of our league, thank goodness.
Our image of her reminds me of a Madeleine L’Engle’s poem called “After Annunciation”:

This is the irrational season
when love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reasons
there’d have been no room for the child.

I am not sure about you, but I am pretty certain I would have been filled not just with fear but with a plethora of reasons as to why God’s plan was unworkable, irrational even. Can you imagine God breaking into your daily routine with a seemingly impossible call for your life? Can you imagine God holy-shadowing you, causing some kind of new creation to be born and to grow within you? Can we imagine God doing something like that here, having the audacity to plant new life in the hollow of this congregation? I just don’t know. It might be terribly frightening. We could have lots of reasons as to why it could not be. Besides, we’ve got too many other things to do. Chaos is not fun to endure, not even holy chaos. We don’t like things we cannot explain or control. Being open to that kind of God-interruption is a job for nativity-set Mary, not for us.

Honestly, we have so little in common with nativity-set Mary that we Protestants don’t even think much about her unless it’s this time of year. On Joy Sunday, we pull her out, year after year, unwrap her, look at her for a bit today and on Christmas Eve, and then carefully wrap her back up and put her away in her box again until the next Advent season comes around. We just have so little in common with the Mary of our nativity sets. And yet, as we ponder this text together, I am not convinced our version of nativity-set Mary actually has much in common with the Mary of scripture anyway. As a matter of fact, I wonder if our version of nativity-set Mary is contradictory to the Mary in whom and through whom God decided to work.

Frankly, I’ve been wondering if we are the ones who have helped to create nativity-set Mary—the model of perfection, of beatific calm, of no blood, no sweat, no tears— because it feels much safer for us if Mary is drastically different than you or me. So out of our league. So much better than us regular people. So much more competent and worthy and holy. A woman who is way more capable of courageously responding to God’s call than we—people filled with lots of reasons as to why God could not choose and use us—could ever be.
But might it be, though, that when we do that—when we transform regular, ordinary, biblical Mary into nativity-set Mary—we miss most of the promise of incarnation? When we do that, when we create this distance between Mary and us, might we imperil the actual miracle of seeing that God decided to become a real, live, flesh-and-blood person through the body of a real, live, flesh-and-blood woman?

I am just not convinced that nativity-set Mary has a whole lot in common with the Mary of scripture. Nativity-set Mary is way too special, too pious, too perfect for her and our own good. And the Gospel writer of Luke seems to go out of his way to point out that the Mary we encounter in his story was actually really no one special—at least no one more special than anyone else.

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.” This is the only introduction we have to Mary in the Gospel of Luke. We are simply told she was an engaged young woman who lived in Nazareth. We know nothing of her family’s history. We can assume she still lived in her father’s home, but we do not know who her father was or what he did. We do not know anything about her faith or her piety, pre-angel. All we know is that she was a young, unmarried peasant woman who lived in Nazareth and who was engaged to a man named Joseph. Frankly, unlike nativity-set Mary, this Mary of scripture seems to be a regular, ordinary person just like you and me.

And that truth is precisely part of the startling news of this text, isn’t it! It was to this regular, ordinary girl named Mary that God sent the angel Gabriel with a perplexing message. “Greetings, favored one,” he began. “The Lord is with you.” Notice – he did not offer any reason at all as to why God chose this girl named Mary for such a task. The angel simply appeared, brought greetings, and promised that God’s presence had always been and continued to be with her. And that was just the way it was. She had not done anything to earn it. She had simply been chosen.

And then, before Mary could even catch her breath, Gabriel quickly revealed just what that favoring, that choosing of her by God, meant for her life. And regular, ordinary Mary heard phrases like “Holy Spirit” and “overshadowing” and “bear a son.” That was a lot to take in all at once. Even Gabriel must have known it was a lot to take in. Remember how he began his words? “Don’t be afraid.”

And it is precisely at this point of her story, right in the middle of the strange angelic encounter, that regular, ordinary Mary did something that might cause us to want to pack her back up immediately and slowly back away. Mary listened to all those words. She asked a few questions—questions of surprise and wondering like “How”—but then, as soon as the angel reminded her nothing is impossible with God, Mary immediately responded with an open willingness, simply saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Frankly, this might be the exact moment when we are quick to restore the distance between us and Mary. This might be the exact moment when we begin to say, “Sure she could agree so willingly to smuggle God’s love into this world because she was nativity-set Mary. She was extra-pious or extra-holy or extra-worthy, or just extra-not-like-us. That’s why she could say yes to God’s crazy call.”

But I think we must resist that temptation. We must resist the temptation to sanitize or diminish Mary’s response by making her anyone other than who she was—a regular, ordinary person—who, when called by God, stepped out with courage and in deep trust that God’s presence really was with her. And that the Holy Presence would be enough to get her through whatever God was asking her to do.

Was she afraid? Yes. Did she understand exactly what was being asked of her? Probably not. Could she comprehend, could she explain, God’s creation process of holy shadowing in her womb? Doubtful. But did she reach through all of that, empty herself of all her reasons to say no, decide to trust that the Lord really was with her, and then open herself up, indeed open her body up, to God’s crazy plan of birthing the good news into the world through God-with-us, the baby Jesus? Absolutely.

So might it be that we regular, ordinary people just like Mary are also invited to become pregnant with God’s possibilities for our own lives, for the life of this place, for the life of our world? Could it be that we regular, ordinary people just like Mary are also called to be deliberately open to being God-bearers, Gospel-carriers, irreplaceable participants in God’s work here and now, where we live and serve? Absolutely.

Meister Eckhart, a thirteenth-century Christian mystic, spoke of our invitation with these words: “The incarnational labor pains began in Mary but continue inside each one of us” (quoted by Heather Shortlidge, Fourth Sunday in Advent paper). In other words, while neither you nor I are going to birth the Savior into the world, you and I are invited, interrupted, beckoned, into listening for God’s seemingly impossible call for how we might participate in God’s new creating in our lives and in our city and in our world, whether that call comes on the wings of an angel or out of the mouth of a friend or stranger.

And even when that call fills us with appropriate fear or with questions of how or with startling surprise, we, like regular, ordinary, biblical Mary, are also invited to reach through all of that, to decide to trust that the Lord really is with us, to empty ourselves of all the reasons why it could not work, and to be open for God’s crazy plan and claim on our lives and on all life. For birthing the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, into this world is an ongoing project. It may have started with Mary, but it did not end with her.

For we worship a God who continues to be at work, birthing the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, into this world through regular, ordinary people, people like you, like me, people who take a deep breath and say, “Here we are, servants of the Lord; let it be with us according to your word”—

A Love that was birthed into our time and history with blood, sweat, and tears, through regular, ordinary Mary.

A Love that continues to be born in us and through us until all the world is new creation—as irrational and as startling as that promise might sound.

Here we are, servants of the Lord; let it be with us according to your word, whether we are ready or not.

Sermon © Fourth Presbyterian Church


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